Right around the time Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) and his adventure-seeking crew hitchhiked on the scaly back of a rainbow-colored dragon and rode to the center of the Sea of Monsters (known to humans as the Bermuda Triangle), I officially stopped critiquing director Thor Freudenthal’s wondrous fantasy excursion and just plugged in for the head-shakingly outlandish but consistently entertaining ride.
Monster-laden oceans, centaurs, fire-breathing mechanical bulls, and Civil War-era zombies sound bizarre out of context. But parents and kids who’ve absorbed author Rick Riordan’s imaginative novels – with their calculated balance of Greek mythology and contemporary teen angst – will expect nothing less from this second installment in the ongoing Percy Jackson cinematic series, Sea of Monsters.
What’s unexpected, at least from my professional perspective, is the impressive special-effects work presided over by Freudenthal as he shepherded Sea of Monsters to the multiplex. While no stranger to the bestseller-to-movie process, Freudenthal’s past kid-friendly credits of Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid gave no indication of the technical prowess and visual ingenuity he brings to Percy. Riordan, obviously, deserves credit for cooking up the imaginative exploits that power Sea of Monsters in the first place. But mythological storytelling can fall flat in the wrong hands, so Freudenthal and his team deserve praise for pulling the fantastical elements off Riordan’s page, then stockpiling them in a familiar world young audience members should enjoy exploring.
Jackson, as followers know, is the offspring of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. As Monsters unfurls, Percy and his friends are attacked at Camp Half-Blood, a safe haven that’s supposed to be protected by an ancient force field. In order to restore the protective barrier, Percy, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and newcomer Tyson (Douglas Smith) – a teenage Cyclops – must retrieve the mythical Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters before it falls into the perilous clutches of Luke (Jake Abel), our hero’s chief rival.
Percy Jackson comes off as Harry Potter lite, with three handsome and adventurous teenage leads cracking wise as they hopscotch from one preposterous mousetrap of danger to the next. The mythology underlying the Percy films doesn’t pretend to carry the same weight as J.K. Rowling’s text, and the performances aren’t nearly as compelling. Lerman, in particular, can be accused of going through the motions as Percy, especially when you consider the exquisitely emotional work he pulled off in the mature The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The young actor has chops, but his enthusiasm for the admittedly corny green-screen antics in the Percy Jackson universe are nonexistent. It’d be wise of Lerman to invest the same level of commitment into the franchise that’s currently paying his bills, particularly because Riordan has delivered three more Percy Jackson books that could fuel sequels if these movies continue to connect with the target YA audience.
And if Fox decides to push on, they’d also be wise to lock Freudenthal up for at least the next installment, which could adapt the 2007 novel The Titan’s Curse. Under Freudenthal’s direction, Sea of Monsters escalates its mythological hijinks without heavy-handedness or a coy wink at the audience. Charismatic character actors like Stanley Tucci, Nathan Fillion and Anthony Head relish the opportunity to play “big” in smaller roles, and the effects work never ceases to impress. If subsequent Percy movies can rise to the level of Sea of Monsters, I predict smooth sailing for this enjoyable YA fantasy series.